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"What's New" Archives: June 2006

June 29, 2006:

DVD WATCH: I've previously recommended, sight unseen, the Oskar Fischinger DVD issued by the Center for Visual Music. My copy arrived earlier this month, and I've been contentedly roaming around in it since then.

The strongest single film on the DVD—strong enough to warrant purchase for that film alone—is Motion Painting No. 1, but some of Fischinger's other abstract films are highly attractive, too. What makes Fischinger's best films so appealing to me, I've realized in watching the DVD, is their fundamentally cinematic nature; no matter how many times I've seen a film like Motion Painting No. 1, I can't help but fall into wondering, as I watch it, what's going to happen next. Abstract films tend to be static and monotonous—twitching easel paintings—but just when Fischinger seems about to surrender to such dullness, he'll surprise you by taking his film down some unexpected path. You're not supposed to think about Fischinger's films as providing such elemental pleasure, of course; the approved academic mode is to talk about animation of all kinds, but avant-garde animation especially, in terms that have no obvious connection with how we respond to a film when we're watching it. But I'm sorry, I can't help myself—Fischinger's best films are simply fun to watch.

Speaking of DVDs, I finally got around to watching the two-disc set of Lady and the Tramp the other evening, and I was pleasantly surprised by the "extras." The reverential tone so common in studio-blessed "making of" documentaries is less evident here; we're even invited to consider whether Walt Disney unfairly denied Joe Grant credit for the idea behind the film (probably so, although the story as it reached the screen is much stronger than the one Grant had in mind). Because most of the people who worked on the film are dead, some of their children speak for them—and, remarkably, what those children (all now middle-aged or older, of course) say is often of considerable interest.

WALT'S PEOPLE UPDATE: The third volume of Didier Ghez's invaluable series devoted to interviews with veteran Disney employees is now available through amazon.com. Highly recommended.

Levy book coverCAREER ADVICE: I've been dipping into David B. Levy's new book, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive, since it arrived a few days ago, and I'm impressed. The chapter titles alone speak of a bracingly realistic point of view, as in these examples: "How to Get the Most of Long Periods of Employment"; "Surviving Unemployment"; "The Horror! Pitching and Selling a Pilot or Series." I don't sense any cynicism, though. Levy seems to be one of those people—I know quite a few of them, and they have my great admiration—who cultivates a realistic view of the animation business so as not to let its cruel and nasty side surprise him and rob him of the pleasure he takes in the work.

Levy lives and works in New York, an animation environment that has always differed significantly from that in Los Angeles and other places, but my sense so far is that his description of the business, and his advice to aspiring animation artists, is not geographically constrained. I'm going to spend considerable time with this book over the next few weeks, and I'll write more about it after I do.

MORE CARS: In the opening paragraphs of my review of that film, I speak of a "sweeping desert landscape" as "computer-generated." A visitor to the site questions that statement; he says he sees a matte painting, there and in other parts of the film. One question, I suppose, is how you define "computer-generated"—does artwork scanned into a computer and output as part of a scene qualify?—but I can't believe that any of those desert landscapes are matte paintings in the traditional sense. I'm embarrased to make such a lazy request, but can anyone point me toward a readily available source that will explain just how such landscapes reach the screen, and especially how they're combined with elements that are unquestionably computer-generated, like the cars themselves?

June 27, 2006:

OVER THE HEDGE: I finally saw it last weekend, and the phrase that leaps to mind is "misplaced effort." The people at DreamWorks Animation have, in their usual manner, gone to a great deal of trouble to get surfaces right. The animals look like the real thing, which is exactly the problem. Combine all the uncannily realistic fur and skin and teeth with puppet-like movement (DreamWorks still lags far behind Pixar in that respect) and with voices that, however well-cast, are insistently those of humans, and the result is to open up distance between audience and characters. I couldn't shake the feeling that the animals had been cast from the stock of a taxidermy shop; they are simply too strange. The story is perfectly serviceable and could have been more than that with just a little work, but it called for a cast of cartoon animals like those that worked so well in Madagascar.

BUGS: An image of the Bunny of that name appeared twice in last Friday's Wall Street Journal, once with a teaser headline ("What's Up Doc? Not Time Warner") on the front page above the masthead, and again, much larger, on the front page of the Money & Investing section, with a story headlined "Time Warner's Malaise Persists." Bugs was identified as one of Time Warner's "key characters." It's too bad that the suits at Time Warner seem not to agree with the Journal that Bugs is "key." Perhaps that's one small reason, among many, that the company's stock has slid about 10 percent since early this year.

MARBLES: In case you missed it, an interview with John Lasseter appeared in last Friday's USA Today. Here's a particularly revealing quote from that story:

"Many racing-related films in the past weren't authentic enough, he says. 'They didn't do their homework. I wanted to make sure the racing scenes were authentic and that they had the energy that you feel at a race live. I was dedicated to that.'

"For instance, in a real race, as cars speed around the track, they literally burn rubber. 'Their tires get hot, and they spin off little bits of rubber they call 'marbles,' 'Lasseter says. 'These things collect along the track. You will see that (in the movie).'"

Ah, the marbles. I knew that was why I found those races, and the film as a whole, so, uh, compelling. Computer-animation people really do seem to become easily obsessed with minutiae, a sign, I suspect, that the medium is entering a decadent phase when audiences will start turning away.

June 22, 2006:

CLARIFICATION: This from Eddie Fitzgerald, whose blog I recommended the other day: "I have to tell you tell you that your comments made it appear that I'm crazy. I don't think that was your intention and I still consider you a friend. In a friendly spirit I offer this observation: While it's true that the net favors casual writing you still have to edit what you say. Sit on the provocative stuff for a night and see if it still looks right the next morning."

I thought it would be obvious that my posting was tongue-in-cheek and intended to tie in with Eddie's hilarious story about being punched by Paul Fennell. But I guess not. So, to set the record straight, Eddie is a funny guy, but not crazy. And I do recommend his blog.

June 20, 2006:

CARS TALK: Andrew Osmond wrote about my review of the new Pixar feature, questioning specifically my remark that John Lasseter "let himself be trapped inside what amounts to a live-action script. Neither Lightning nor any of the other characters need be automobiles; they could just as well be people, and all of the story's events could easily have been translated into live action." Andrew writes: "It’s true the Cars characters need not have been automobiles. [But] in what sense does Cars have more of a 'live-action script'than your own favourite Pixar film, The Incredibles? I can imagine a live-action (albeit effects-heavy) 'translation'of that film with little trouble."

"Effects-heavy" is surely the critical phrase. So many films are so heavy with CGI effects that the boundary between live action and computer animation is now very blurry, and in its last half even The Incredibles comes dangerously close at times to simply duplicating what we've already seen in live-action thrillers. But what happens on the screen is almost always caricatured in a way that distinguishes it clearly from live action, and caricature is absolutely central to the identity of the characters. You're not going to find any actors who resemble Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, and those characters wind up seeming all the more real for that reason.

Which reminds me: When I suggested in my review that the animation in Cars was "flawless," I should have added, "on its own photo-realistic terms," and I've now done so. But flawless photo-realism doesn't seem to me much to get excited about it, and some of my correspondents have complained of flaws in both animation and design. Michael Sporn remarked that he "was never able to get past the eyes of the characters (they didn't work as eyes and kept distracting [me] with that little chip in the eyelids)." On his excellent "Splog," Michael remarked on another aspect of Cars: "The paint job of newer cars has a flecking/speckling of glitter within the paint. In the right light, the main character, Lightning McQueen, had this paint job. Everytime I saw it, I was distracted and pulled out of the film. Like the real paint on a real car, that flecking was embedded within the paint, itself. It didn’t feel like the byproduct of a human hand; it felt like a computer trick."

I noticed that speckling. After I realized it wasn't a mistake but was supposed to be there, I wondered how much effort had gone into achieving that effect. More than went into coming up with a coherent story, I'm sure.

Pixar—at least in its Lasseter-dominated films—may have reached a tipping point. As an anonymous correspondent writes: "I'm not sure if I'm just noticing more of Pixar's house style with each film or their formula is getting balder and balder with each repetition. It is the case that they, like NASCAR, are trying to keep the audience they have and grow new audience members: the problem is the dollars are so big that it's more and more difficult to veer off the formula with each success." What may turn out to be decisive, in a negative sense, is that Lasseter has applied the Pixar formula to material so uncongenial to that formula as stock-car racing.

And then there's the next Pixar feature, with those damned rats. As Andrew Osmond reminds me, we're in for a spate of rat-populated films, including not just Ratatouille but Aardman's Flushed Away. My anonymous correspondent writes: "One small addition/correction on your comments about Ratatouille: the advisor rat suggests 'muscling' past the gag reflex, not just suppressing it. This may indeed be a job for John K. and not Brad Bird! I'm also glad you didn't mention the rats' somewhat matted/greasy/wet fur...ugh."

FAST EDDIE: Eddie Fitzgerald told me some time ago that he was starting a blog, but he didn't give me the URL for it even after I asked. That Eddie, he's a caution. Anyway, by clicking here you can learn how Eddie got punched out by an old guy who animated for Walt Disney in the early thirties. (Actually, Eddie is one of those guys who seems to invite a punch in the face by his very existence, so we're probably in for a lot more stories like this one.)

COAL BLACK: That Bob Clampett cartoon has been the subject of several postings here recently, and so perhaps it's worth noting that in an Annecy Festival poll of "30 specialists" to choose "100 Films for a Century of Animation," Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs finished at No. 40, higher than all but nine other American cartoons. It's the only Clampett cartoon on the list, and one of only three Warner cartoons (the other two being Chuck Jones standbys). I noticed only four Disney shorts, a couple of Averys, three Fleischers, and a couple of UPAs, along with a number of independent films, some of them highly questionable choices (Frank Film? You've got to be kidding). The National Film Board of Canada seems to have produced more important cartoons than anyone else, if you believe the "30 specialists."

For me, this list is even stranger than the strange list of the 50 greatest cartoons in Jerry Beck's book of that title. I wasn't invited to participate in either selection process, so you can write off my skepticism as sour grapes or tip your hat to my disinterestedness, as you see fit.

INDEXING: I'm pleasantly surprised sometimes when I happen to go into old "What's New" postings and I discover how substantial they are—not just some of my own comments but those of many of my visitors. I've created a rough index to those earlier postings at the bottom of this page, so that it's easier to locate a topic of interest.

June 18, 2006:

CLAMPETT: William Griffin wrote in response to Milt Gray's essay on Bob Clampett's Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs; you can read his comments, and Milt's response, by going to this Feedback page.

KIMBALL CLIP: Timothy Clarke, a visitor to the site, was annoyed by the poor quality of the one-minute audio clip accompanying the Ward Kimball interview, and he has generously provided me with a greatly improved version.

June 17, 2006:

CARS: As you may have gathered from the posting below, I didn't like it much. To read why, click here.

June 12, 2006:

CARS: I saw it the day it opened, while I was on vacation, and I'll a post a review of it later this week. In the meantime, these thoughts:

1. Steve Jobs is truly a business genius, if we define genius as knowing exactly the right moment to sell.

2. Michael Eisner evidently understood something that Robert Iger didn't.

3. Walt Disney knew what he was doing when he made Susie the Little Blue Coupe as a seven-minute short instead of a two-hour feature.

4. There should be—but won't be—an instant moratorium on proclamations that John Lasseter is the second coming of Walt.

June 1, 2006:

GUEST ESSAYS: I'll be away for the next couple of weeks, so in my absence I'm posting a couple of essays, on Bob Clampett and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, perhaps Clampett's greatest film, from Milt Gray, my indispensable collaborator in the research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. Milt's pieces appeared originally a few years ago, in slightly different form, in one of animation's hidden treasures, the bi-monthly gathering of private newsletters called APAtoons. You can read about APAtoons, and find out what's involved in joining the group, by clicking here.